Once Upon A Time In Hollywood -Tarantino’s Fairy Tale Triumph

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Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, is his masterpiece. There, I’ve said it.

It almost feels glib to make such a bald, bland statement about this often breathtakingly complex work, but if this is to be his penultimate movie (and his tenth and final film will be “epilogue-y” as the director recently stated), then he has left us with something that not only stands as a brilliant expansion and culmination of his cinematic style and obsessions but also as arguably the most intricate and layered film in his body of work.

It’s a beautiful and elegiac love letter to not only Hollywood but also international filmmaking, it uses a potentially troublesome real-life tragedy and gives it catharsis in the most surprisingly touching and tender way, and it presents a simple bromance that eventually reveals itself as something deeper.

Set across two brief moments six months apart, Tarantino shows us a Hollywood in transition, beset by television, the dying embers of the studio system giving way to the bright flames of New Hollywood, the encroachment of international films and indeed, of the death of the 1960s as an ideal, we’re introduced to fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman-cum-personal driver-cum-gopher, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

As the two weave their way through dwindling career opportunities, we meet their mirror opposite, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whose star is on the ascendant and ready to burn brightly. As Al Pacino’s Hollywood producer offers Dalton a lifeline in Italy to feature in Spaghetti Westerns and Euro-spy movies, Tate glimpses the wonder of her craft and the two threads play out with some of Tarantino’s most perfectly measured storytelling since Jackie Brown (now my second favourite film from the director), all the while magnificently slowly building towards the tension and violence of the era-ending and personal tragedy we know is about to unfold.

DiCaprio continues his run as a driven, fearless performer, handling every level of Dalton’s movie star bragadoccio and insecurities with ease, never failing to find the most human of reactions, while Pitt further reveals himself to be the character actor in a movie star’s body those of us with more attuned tastes have always known him to be. His role could easily have played as unlikable or even offensive, but he strides across this with his easy going charm, leaving us with an arresting and enjoyable ambiguity.

Pitt and DiCaprio make for such an impeccable screen teaming that if it wasn’t so all-fired perfect here already, I’d be begging to see more. But their transition from employer and employee to deep friendship is so beautifully bittersweet that I can’t see any other, future pairing as anything more than anti-climatic.

There has been much criticism of Tarantino’s handling of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, with many saying she is underused. This is, of course, complete nonsense (as is the storm in a tea cup over Bruce Lee’s role in the story, which willfully misunderstands the nature of the film). Tate is the joyful glue that binds the film, an even more impressive feat of both writing and acting considering many of her scenes see the character playing not off others, but reveling in her life, by and for herself, in the moment before her Hollywood stardom explodes.

Robbie, the writing and direction of her, gives us a wonderful character and a heartfelt tribute to the real life actress. The scene of her watching herself on a Westwood cinema screen, delighting in not only her own performance (made even more multi-faceted by the fact we see the real Tate) but also in the reactions of the audience around her, has instantly become one of my favourite Tarantino sequences from all of his films. Rather than marginalize the actor, Tarantino has the confidence in his star to let her carry this all out wordlessly.

It’s a scene which also stands as one of two moments in particular (though I suspect further viewings will reveal more) which startlingly play with perceptions of how, and perhaps even why, we watch films in ways I’m still trying to unravel, but this and DiCaprio’s incredible address to himself in his mirror where he instead makes perfect eye contact with the audience were genuinely spine-chilling.

The playful blending and juxtaposition of films in our real world and films in Tarantino’s reel world is also sure to leave film lovers with examination and critique that will no doubt reward, infuriate and entrance for decades to come.

Tarantino’s films all pay off with multiple viewing, but this is a genuine treasure chest which unfolds to reveal multiple levels of jewels which will catch the light to reveal themselves the more we look into it.

Standing as a love letter to Hollywood and an ode to that town’s ever-changing tides of filmmaking, as an ode to the end of an era, as the reclamation of a terrible real-life crime and celebration of the life of the woman involved in that event, as a charming buddy movie examination of the changing dynamics of friendship and as an investigation of cinema and our relationship to it, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood really is Tarantino’s most emotionally mature and singularly impressive work.

It’s also the first Tarantino film to bring a tear to my eye, with a quite beautiful, and delicate closing scene which perfectly encapsulates what the film is: a Hollywood fairy tale, with all the romance and darkness of the very best fairy tales.

In fact, it’s his masterpiece. There, I’ve said it again.

*You can read more about the cinematic legacy of Charles Manson here.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate – All In The Worst Possible Taste

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous Tate – LaBianca murders and, much like waiting for a bus, along come three movies to mark the date in various ways. I’ve yet to see Mary Harron’s Charlie Says and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but I think it’s safe to assume that if The Haunting of Sharon Tate set out to be the worst of the three then it can be considered a rip-roaring success.

It’s pretty tough to figure out what was going on in anybody’s heads in their efforts to make this movie. Hilary Duff, who could most charitably be described as awful, runs the gamut from cloying to annoyingly hysterical (not in the humorous way either), playing Tate as little more than a blank slate.

But then the script she has to work with gives her no help whatsoever, keeping the characters character-free and running fast and loose with the unsubstantiated real-life rumour that the actress had a premonition of her own death. In doing so, it attempts to turn cult leader Charles Manson (who instructed four of his followers to kill the inhabitants of 10050 Cielo Drive) into a Freddy Krueger boogieman-type apparition, and that’s probably the least boneheaded element of this truly wretched movie.

Following the real events, Duff’s Tate arrives back at the home she made with her film director husband, Roman Polanski (off in Europe working on the script for Day of the Dolphin, as the script leadenly points out), with her friend and former lover, Jay Sebring (Jonathon Bennett) and three other friends who are looking after the house.

Almost immediately, Tate begins hearing noises, gets spooked by cupboard doors creaking open and windows being left ajar (to the point where you’re screaming at the screen: “JUST CLOSE ALL THE GODDAMNED WINDOWS, ALREADY!”) before playing a kind of Ouija board game that adds nothing to the mix and having a quick conversation about destiny. Oh, and dropping as many expository factoids about Polanski and Tate into six or seven lines of dialogue as humanly possible. Its even more irritating than it sounds.

Then the interminable music (by someone possibly wisely named only as Fantom) which wallpapers every scene SUDDENLY GETS REALLY LOUD AND SCARY as a hippy turns up at the house looking for the previous owner, music producer Terry Melcher. That’ll be Charles Manson then, folks. Or maybe it’s Freddy Krueger. Tough to tell from that music.

From then on, Tate’s unease turns to full blown hysteria as we see the murders play out as her nightmare and she imagines blood pouring out of the bath taps while the audience starts wondering if Hilary Duff might return to her singing career soon because that would be marginally less painful than sitting through the rest of this film.

Just when you think the movie can’t get any worse it goes and exceeds expectations by getting much, much worse: Tate is turned into a gun-toting Linda Hamilton clone, seeing off Manson’s followers with great vengeance and furious anger, as she reimagines taking charge of her destiny (foreshadowed in her earlier conversations about, well… destiny, geddit?).

And, uh… that’s it… 94 minutes of something utterly ghastly, filled with a billion beauty shots of the Hollywood sign and surrounding hills (you could certainly never be unclear where this film took place), would-be portentous dialogue and a hilarious shot where Duff’s Tate is sitting by the pool reading a book titled REINCARNATION, in nice, big friendly text. Oh, and the vaguely rotten aftertaste that The Haunting of Sharon Tate is indulging in a little victim blaming by suggesting that the ill-fated party might have lived if only they’d been resourceful enough to fight back a little harder. Or they’d had Linda Hamilton to hand.

Bad taste can be invigorating, thrilling and hilarious or it can just be bad taste. This is definitely the latter, and is nowhere near clever enough to realise just how obnoxious it is.

It would be a real cheap shot to say this film is truly Duff, but fuck it, it doesn’t deserve anything better.